Cape Town’s housing crises

NAI researcher Marianne Millstein investigates the government’s temporary solutions to the housing crisis in Cape Town. However, for the majority, the temporary camp will be their permanent home for the foreseeable future.

Delft is a poor but vibrant community on the Cape Flats, adjoining the international airport. The area has a unique history that captures how the South African government has tried to solve Cape Town’s housing crises over the past 25 years. Today, the area is also known for the relocation of the urban poor to temporary relocation areas (TRAs). In my research, I try to understand the way government sees and governs temporary relocations and to capture some of the everyday experiences of TRA residents.

The media describe Delft as a dumping ground, especially after the area became home to TRAs. The best-known TRA, Blikkiesdorp, has been called a concentration camp and a state-built informal settlement, but people also try to make homes and a life for themselves there despite the dire circumstances.

Many residents of Blikkiesdorp were relocated because of some kind of emergency (although what constitutes an emergency is not always straightforward). The very different circumstances of the relocations mean that residents come from all walks of life.   This, combined with the undefined duration of their residency, seriously hampers efforts to strengthen community networks. It also affects resident mobility. Thus, while residents talk about neighbours looking after each other, the block around the corner or in another section is a no-go area.  

Another challenge is that, given limited resources, even TRA units become a housing opportunity that can be sold and rented illegally. The city runs regular checks on who is living in the TRAs, but is dependent on the community for information on such activities. While policies provide guidance, officials, project managers and community members also try to negotiate solutions in difficult circumstances. Officials are not indifferent to the circumstances of Blikkiesdorp, but they have limited resources at their disposal. Consequently, as one official admitted, they often find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

For people in Blikkiesdorp the struggle is about finding a way out. Some groups say they were promised they would remain for only six months but have stayed put for four years. Other residents concede that their residency is indefinite. Whatever the case, they all live in a peculiar state of temporary permanence that is difficult to negotiate. For instance, one family did not want to improve its housing unit in case alternative housing became available, but they had been in the place for three years and did not know when the opportunity to move might arise.

Blikkiesdorp illustrates how governing subjects also is about governing spaces (Roy 2009). Some image of order and control is manifest in the grid lay-out and the fencing around   Blikkiesdorp, with   one gate at the bottom and one at top of the settlement. However, efforts to construct order are contested. Contestation ranges from direct protest about living conditions, to illegally extending shacks despite strict regulations. There are also community groups that organise residents, challenging government on the state of social services and demanding answers about whether they will benefit from the new housing projects being built next door.  

For that small group of residents who qualify for housing under the state’s allocation framework, these projects might be a way out. However, for the majority, the temporary camp will be their permanent home for the foreseeable future.

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